What is ‘poverty porn’ and why does it matter for development?

Madonna in Malawi - by Publicity handout/Reuters

Madonna in Malawi - by Publicity handout/Reuters

It was a hot day in mid-summer Lilongwe and my passenger and I were driving towards ‘Old Town,’ the commercial district of Malawi’s capital. The main highway took us through a roundabout overlooked by a gargantuan UNICEF sign promoting their birth certificate registration campaign. The sign featured an extreme close-up of a Malawian toddler, a bland and helpless look on his face and a single tear running down his cheek.

“Look at that,” I said, “Isn’t that awful the way they are using that child to get what they want?”

“Maybe,” said my passenger, “but if it helps them achieve their aim, proper birth registration, isn’t it worth it?”

In one of the very few posts I’ve made so far – and likely often in the future – you’ll see me refer to certain projects or images as being examples of poverty porn. The phrase has been thrown around a lot, and is growing more and more popular. What does it mean and why does it matter? My thoughts on the subject are often not complete and coherent, so keep this in mind while reading!

The first time I became aware of the concept was during the flurry of discussion over the fashion photographer Rankin’s exhibition of photos of DRC refugees. A number of blogs discussed whether or not Rankin’s attempt to shoot refugees as he would celebrities was more or less exploitative than the usual Western portrayals of Africa (for a fantastic discussion of the Rankin photos see The Scarlett Lion and Wronging Rights). Neither SL or WR mention the term “poverty porn,” but I seem to recall learning about it around this time.

As I’ve come to believe, poverty porn, also known as development porn or even famine porn, is any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause. Poverty porn is typically associated with black, poverty-stricken Africans, but can be found elsewhere. The subjects are overwhelming children, with the material usually characterized by images or descriptions of suffering, malnourished or otherwise helpless persons. The stereotype of poverty porn is the African child with a swollen belly, staring blankly into the camera, waiting for salvation. I ask you to take a look at the image above of Madonna and children from a Malawian orphanage. The photo was part of her campaign to adopt a second child (an interesting analysis of the choice of color here).

There is another use of the term, to describe the glamorizing or beautification of poverty. This meaning was part of a major critique of Danny Boyle’s recent hit Slumdog Millionare, which many felt was wrong to create entertainment out of childhood strife and destitution. Given my definition of poverty porn, I don’t believe Slumdog Millionaire qualifies. I’ll explain why shortly.

Why is poverty porn (as I’ve defined it) so dangerous? As my passenger in my car argued: it serves a purpose. For UNICEF or Oxfam, the use of poverty porn is another tool to garner support for an unquestionably good cause: the reduction of  suffering and poverty. We may be exploiting them to achieve this, but surely the end outweighs the means?

The reason I find this argument unpersuasive is due to the culture that poverty porn breeds. The statement that this sort of media makes is “We have a group of people who are utterly helpless, and only you can save them.” Please take another look at the Madonna photograph above. I will not argue that places like Sub-Saharan Africa are without need, but the argument that the poor are completely incapable of rescuing themselves, either at the micro or at the country-level, removes all respect for their own agency and cultivates a culture of paternalism which is damaging to the development process.

In a recent article on Madonna’s second adoption case in Malawi in the Guardian, the author, a film maker spending his first days in the country, described the scene upon his arrival:

I arrive in May, just after the rains, and within a mile of the airport see coffins being made on the side of the road. This is Malawi’s only growth industry. There are up to a million Aids orphans here in this tiny country – I see some by the side of the road, playing under the coffins. Life expectancy here is 40; half the population are under 14. In the first village I visit – a place where Madonna is planning to invest in a new school and orphanage – the chief tells me that a child dies every three days. They bury them in a big pit.

The reason poverty porn is so pervasive is that it promotes a popular stereotype, one that has always existed in Western literature about Africa. Binyavanga Wainaina wrote a brilliant piece several years ago in Granta about this practice called “How to write about Africa:”

Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering.

Such descriptions (obviously a satirical take in Wainaina’s case) perfectly relate how much the media reduces the poor to caricature.

Why doesn’t Slumdog Millionaire qualify as poverty porn? Its characters, children stuck in the slums of Mumbai, are lively and intelligent. They scratch out success from a meager starting point: absolute poverty. They are free agents, not cardboard cut-outs waiting around for rescue, but happy to accept help when it is offered.

The strange irony of poverty porn is that it is so often associated with people and institutions that are deeply optimistic about aid and development, where many of the most fervent skeptics, such as Bill Easterly, are the quickest to cry foul when battered with images of flies and distended bellies. This is quite incongruous, as the insidious ideology behind development porn is deeply, deeply pessimistic about endogenous results.

I’m not rejecting the notion of poverty or growth traps, although I tend to agree more with the sort of traps that Paul Collier has proposed, rather than those of Jeffrey Sachs. It is perfectly plausible that many countries cannot and will not develop without some kind of external assistance, be it through direct aid, trade policy or international rules and norms.

Yet poverty porn is invariably concerned not with the big picture, but with the individual – this person is helpless – this person needs your money – this person is incapable of making a better life for him/herself. In going down the path of the ‘savior’, we’ll inevitably be biased not towards policy that works, but towards policy that makes us feel good about ourselves. We (er, those in the aid business) should eventually be making our work obsolete, but paternalism is forever.

I don’t for a second doubt that many of the desperately poor people around the world are ‘trapped,’ and need assistance to improve their lives. I believe we can do this without reducing them to caricature, by giving them the dignity they deserve. Andrea Perera of Oxfam says it better:

Poor people are just like us in many ways; they’re just trying their best to make a go of it. We hope relating the honest truth, not some stylized, overly dramatic version of it, motivates our constituents

Thanks for reading – as I warned it isn’t entirely coherent, but it may give you an idea of why the practice makes me so uneasy.

A few more links:

An excellent short film (by Ben Affleck of all people) which escapes the trappings of development porn. [WR]

We of course shouldn’t confuse poverty porn with the infamous charity porn [WR].

One thought on “What is ‘poverty porn’ and why does it matter for development?

  1. Ranil Dissanayake

    July 2, 2009 at 8:48am

    so many genres of porn! I never saw these on the shelves in SoHo!

    Seriously, though, things like the Guardian article have another impact as well: It’s not just promoting an image of pitiable helplessness, it’s also alienating and angering many of the people best placed to contribute to African development: well-educated Africans, and African businesspeople.

    The response to this kind of thing from our ex-colleagues in Malawi was scornful. My boss used to call me on it when she saw some of the photos on our Development Assistance strategy: ‘what?! who did this? the UN!? eeeh! this is not the MAlawi I know. I want a photo of a road, and a new school!’.

Comments are closed.